Dems to force Senate vote on COVID hate crimes bill in wake of Georgia attack

Senators from both parties have said the bill should go through committee instead

Senate Democrats are going to force a procedural vote Wednesday on a bill targeting "COVID-19 hate crimes," in an effort to get Republicans on the record on legislation Democrats say is a no-brainer to fight hate against Asian-Americans. 

Republicans, meanwhile, allege that the bill is simply messaging legislation that will do little to address actual hate crimes. 

The bill introduced by Sen. Maize Hirono, D-Hawaii, in the Senate and Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., in the House would require the Justice Department (DOJ) to assign one employee to work full-time "to facilitate the expedited review of COVID–19 hate crimes." It's officially called the "COVID–19 Hate Crimes Act."

The bill defines a "COVID-19 hate crime" as violence committed against a person due to their "actual or perceived race, ethnicity, age, color, religion, national origin" or other identity and its "actual or perceived relationship to the spread of COVID-19." 

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The bill was reintroduced in early March, shortly before a shooter killed eight people at Atlanta-area massage parlors. The shooting didn't appear to be motivated by the coronavirus but did bring attention to crimes against Asian-Americans and helped build momentum behind the bill. 

President Biden in the immediate aftermath of the shooting called on Congress to take action on the bill. 

"While we do not yet know motive, as I said last week, we condemn in the strongest possible terms the ongoing crisis of gender-based and anti-Asian violence that has long plagued our nation," Biden said. "I urge Congress to swiftly pass the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which would expedite the federal government’s response to the rise of hate crimes exacerbated during the pandemic."

Republicans, meanwhile, have expressed concerns about how the bill was drafted and the path it's taking through the Senate. 

"I don't recall it going through committee, so it just comes to the floor. Also, it’s just a messaging vote," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said of the bill. 

In my experience here you tend to have snap floor votes on the partisan things, but you go through committee on these really important things.  And I think our AAPI community is feeling really traumatized right now and I don't think a snap partisan floor vote is going to give them the assurances we should be providing them

— Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.

Added Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine: "Certainly I condemn hate crimes against the Asian Americans or any other ethnic group. The bill has some drafting problems that I hope can be corrected. For example, it seems to say that the hate crime has to be linked to COVID, which is rather odd."

The first version of the bill was introduced last year amid concern of hate crimes against Asian-Americans in the early stages of the pandemic, which Democrats said was were fueled by former President Donald Trump. He and members of his administration were criticized by Democrats for calling the virus, which originated in China, the Chinese coronavirus, Chinese virus, the Kung Flu, and other names. 

Notably, major media outlets routinely referred to the virus as the Chinese coronavirus early in the pandemic. And variants of the virus have been referred to based on where they were first discovered, including the United Kingdom, South Africa, and other countries. 

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But despite GOP concerns about the drafting of the bill, Democrats on Tuesday doubled down on their plan to bring it for a procedural vote, forcing Senate Republicans on the record. 

"There is no reason, no reason, this shouldn't be a bipartisan bill that passes the Senate without delay," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said. "This is not a gotcha, some kind of gotcha piece of legislation. It's legislation our times demand."

"We've all seen the horrific incidents of unprovoked targeted hate crimes against AAPIs," Hirono said referring to the Asian American Pacific Islander community, "And these kinds of hate crimes have gone up in every single state."

The first Asian-American woman elected to the Senate noted, "This bill that we're bringing to the floor of the Senate is very simple it should be totally non-controversial."

Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020, during the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Hirono is the main Senate sponsor of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020, during the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Hirono is the main Senate sponsor of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

The organization Stop AAPI Hate documented at least 3,795 attacks from last March to February of this year. Hirono blamed - in part - the language of the previous administration.

"Words matter," said Hirono, "So when you have a president who deems the virus to be the China virus or to have members of his administration refer to it as Kung flu, you create an environment where people will be motivated because of whatever reasons they have to commit these kinds of crimes. It is very important we now have a president who speaks out and takes a stand."

Schumer on the Senate floor Tuesday also said that if 60 Republicans vote to proceed to debate on the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, he would offer a bill backed by Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., in an effort at bipartisanship. 

"We are open to strengthening the bill. There's an effort underway to add a bipartisan amendment, sponsored by Senators Blumenthal and Moran, one a Democrat one a Republican, as an amendment, and their bill would provide resources to state and local law enforcement to improve hate crime reporting, increase training, and establish pathways to rehabilitation," Schumer said. 

"As majority leader, it's my intention to make the first amendment a bipartisan one, but I can't do that unless our Republican colleagues allow us to debate the bill," he continued. 

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But there was concern from at least one Democrat about fast-tracking the bill in the Senate rather than sending it through committee, as is standard procedure for most bills. 

"We should try to get to bipartisan support on this and I'm a little troubled about the notion of just having a snap floor vote when the bill hasn't gone through committee," Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said.

"In my experience here you tend to have snap floor votes on the partisan things, but you go through committee on these really important things," he continued. "And I think our AAPI community is feeling really traumatized right now and I don't think a snap partisan floor vote is going to give them the assurances we should be providing them."

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., agreed with Kaine. 

"I would rather the bill have been brought up under regular or going through committee was hearings, as we normally do," he said. "We can't tolerate any kind of hate crimes in the United States."

Fox News' Kelly Phares, Chad Pergram and Jason Donner contributed to this report.